Friday, 7 August 2020

God the Intimate - Abba, Father - rich and contemplative provisos

(This is the fourth in our continuing series examining the wording of the traditionally Christian "Apostles' Creed" in a fresh way.)

Abba, Father

[God’s title of “Abba, Father” is only found referenced in the Bible three separate times, in the passages of Romans 8:15, Mark 14:36, and Galatians 4:6, which are all in the New Testament. Only two speakers utter these words in these passages: Jesus and the apostle Paul.  The word Abba is an Aramaic word that means “Father.”  It was a common term that expressed affection and confidence and trust. Abba signifies the close, intimate relationship of a father and his child, as well as the childlike trust that a young child puts in his “daddy.”]

I am going to use the words name and title interchangeably here. Though, be ready; I really want to be talking about title, even if I slip back into ideas around name.

I want to flag that fact, right up front and central; because whilst I always mean title, a way of saying something about ‘things’, a way of expressing a relationship of ‘things within a structure’, it is more common for us to talk in terms of name.  I am not looking to veer off into specialist language or make this jarring to read, but for the sake of honesty I want to be clear that this is what I mean.  Titles are bestowed from the outside; whereas the name is not just of them but from them.

A name, in the true sense, is personal.  A name is how we address someone we know.  If we’re lucky, the name by which we address someone also happens to be the name they know themselves by.  But this isn’t universally the case.  Does your cat really think his name is “Spike”?  Isn’t he, in his own understanding, “Cunning and Stealthy Hunter of the Night”?  A name is not as simple as what someone is called by, alerted by, invited by; it is how they understand themselves and it is how they give themselves to others.  Often the name we receive at our beginnings in our community  — as if it were indeed a title — is one we grow to fill.  For most of us it may become synonymous with the name in which we give ourselves to others; it may become integral to how we see ourselves.  But equally we can adapt it, even change it.  We tell others what our name is, no matter it may not originally have been our choice, no matter who may have given it to us first.  More seriously than “Spike” the cat, and perhaps of more relevance: is the name you gave to your son at birth the name she knows herself by (and has she yet told you her true name)?

Whereas, titles are about relationships: in fact, relationships are inherent to titles.  A community can teach us titles, because titles, like other jargon, are learnt by use within those communities.  We can all use the titles of our community, they belong to all of us, but the name is something given to us each personally.  “Please call me ‘Fred’,” is reserved for particular people within the community. 

However, even the titles we learn in our communities can become names — but they can only become names through a living relationship.  Then the name, unlike the title, is something we cannot share with others because it is not the sound of the word or the shape of the writing that creates the relationship, it is that living relationship that transforms that title into a name.  As an example: we call God by the title ‘Father’ in the Lord’s Prayer but it is the ‘Our Father’ of praying as a community.  For it to become ‘My Father’ — well, that is not something that can be taught or even tested from the outside: that is a matter of the lived relationship and personal experience in prayer.

There is possibly no better cipher or symbol for this than the traditional Christian ‘Holy Trinity’.  God is three and one, said to be truly one and also truly not only one.  If we are personally able to use this frame of reference, immediately we are faced with the real inability of even our most basic concepts — “one” and “many” — to be applied in an exhaustive or limiting way to that which we call God.  Moreover, we are not only faced by this reality: if this is our language, we face this reality without withdrawing from being able to speak about God at all.  We embrace being able to say something, while also embracing that there is always so much more than what we have said. 

But there’s more: in the Holy Trinity we also encounter God as relatedness (for more on this, explore the writings of Gregory of Nyssa), in which the titles ‘Father’, ‘Son’, and ‘Holy Spirit’ all refer back to each other, and are understood in view of each other.  This framework suggests that the ways of relating to God are many, not because they can be but because they have to be.  Each and every one does not stand alone but implies the others too.

This is not the place to develop a theology of the Holy Trinity, though there is a rich and beautiful tradition to draw on, which many Unitarians have neglected, that delivers a treasure trove of insights about relating to God, in the light of God’s self-relatedness.   Similarly, in the Hindu tradition, inherent to the universe is the relationship of Brahman the unmanifest potential of all that can be, sometimes known in the west as the Godhead, and Atman the manifest, the created, the ensouled God.  And in respect of this all-pervading relatedness, there is a wonderful Hindu saying: 

'You think that you understand TWO because you understand ONE, and ONE AND ONE MAKE TWO; but first you have to understand AND.'

For now I just want to make the point that in the same way ‘God’ as a no-name holds the place for that experience of the insistence on more , ‘Trinity’ holds the mind back from reductionist descriptions of the Divine and from mistaking any of God’s names as being exhaustive. 

The Apostolic Creed is in many ways an expansion of the idea of the Holy Trinity, not just in form (though there it is most clear), but also in reflecting on the meanings of each of the names of God given in that formulation.

How often do we get caught up in having to outline what we mean, and what we don’t mean, when we talk about or to God, in community?  We reach around, looking for shared experiences to draw on, and often find that for every good feeling invoked by a name there are profoundly negative experiences linked to it too.  We can find ourselves trying to use novel names or lengthy work-arounds which provoke responses we don’t intend — or which simply leave people cold.  Understood correctly, the moniker of Holy Trinity gets in there right from the start with the provisos, and moves our communitarian speaking of and to the Divine out of the realm of our many and varied personal associations with names; moves our speaking of and to the Divine into a place of a shared understanding of titles, and how they relate to each other and not just to us personally.

For some people, the experiences of their life may mean they never experience God in their lives as the ‘Abba, my Father’ of Jesus praying alone, but that doesn’t prevent them from honestly reciting the words ‘Our Father’ with the community.  Nor does it mean that they can’t experience the private intimacy in prayer that the words ‘Abba, my Father’ reveals. 

We fear that the way we talk to and of God in our communities will exclude and marginalise.  That concern is born of love, and of the awareness of how differently people can experience the world. Yet the truth that no name, taken alone, exhausts the Divine — and that how we learn in community to talk of and to God is the starting point not the end of our own lived relationship — can set us free from the knots we tie ourselves in.  To say ‘God is Father’ is to say something but not everything; it is to affirm something but not to exclude everything else; it is to indicate something but also to draw attention to there being more.  The Holy Trinity helps us keep our minds as open as we want our hearts to be, so that we can share in community not by ignoring diversity of experience but by embracing a shared context and a profound respect for God in the lives of each and every one of us. I believe in the Holy Trinity.

Sunday, 28 June 2020

That word 'God'

In God

Do not be afraid.  

This is not the name used to coerce compliance to a set of rules, or used to open wallets for personal profit.  It is not the name behind which people doing bad things have hidden, or the name in which truly awful things have been done.  Some people have always tried to coerce compliance, to prey on the finances of others.  Some people have always sought to get away with doing bad things.  And history is full of people being truly awful.  There will always be people using anything that works to do these things; and we must not be blind to it no matter where or when it happens. ‘God’ didn’t make them do it, no matter how much our cultures and societies may have enabled it.  Those people need to answer for their crimes, and alongside that, other people need to recognise the abuses of systems and to change the systems.

God is not a name.

God is a no-name.

And I believe in God.

I believe in God the way I believe in Justice, in Truth, in Beauty, in Good.  When I say I believe in all these things I am not opening up a debate about their existence, as if I can point at them — or as if anyone would settle anything by pointing to a place where they were not.  I am not using the phrase to ward off responsibility for my words and actions, and I am not using it to give me an authority or power over others, though that can be done with any of those other things I believe in too.  When I say I believe in God I am sharing my experience of the world, and of something important to me about how I live in that world.  

When I say I believe in God I am witnessing to God’s insistence, not God’s existence (John Caputo, The Weakness of God).

Personally or in my community, I have never experienced God as a rare creature found only in particularly unusual habitats, of which tall tales are told and dubious sightings are shared in hushed tones.  My belief in God isn’t a scientific fact to be verified or falsified; it’s my witness to a lived experience of more.  The experience of an insistence that I try to be a better person, that I try to understand the world around me and my place in it better.  An insistence not limited to the will and wants of the people around me, not limited to my ease or preference, not limited to current success or bound by past failures.  An unlimited insistence that is neither without me nor within me (John Henry Newman, A Proof of God).  The experience of an insistence that there is something else just over the horizon, just behind that cloud, or around that bend.  The insistence that things go on, wherever I look.  This experience is subjective, in the sense I can’t ever separate myself from it; but it is objective in the sense that I do not choose it, it does not stem from me alone, and — more yet — it is at the core of everything I do or say. 

That which we call God is always more (Anselm of Canterbury, Monologion). Every time we alight on something and would call it God we are disappointed because it falls short (Plato, Phaedrus).  God is more: we experience God in the difference between how things are and how we feel they ought to be; between what we know and what we feel there is to know. 

God is more, which means for every title we give, for every description we use — however true, however just, however beautiful — there is always more, which it does not convey, than it conveys.  For every new insight that comparison reveals to us about God, it turns out that God is always more NOT like that, than God IS like that.  God is always more NOT as we imagine or intuit, than anything we fixate on God being. 

Not this.

Not this.

Not even this.

That very urge that makes you feel uncomfortable with the word ‘God’, that makes you want to shy away from using it, is your own witness to knowing that God is more than what ‘God’ is said to be.  I, too, do not assert an old man with a long beard on a cloud; I, too, do not assert an angry, joyless dictator.  I, too, can all too often see the human behind the curtain when ‘God the great and powerful’ is proclaimed, and am angry, and sad, at the abuse and the greed and the power-mad, wanton cruelty.  None of this will I call God.

God is the insistence that I cannot deny that these things are wrong, that we can do better, that things can be better, that there is always more.  God is not ‘this being the case because I want it to be’: God is more, and I believe in God.

Tuesday, 16 June 2020

In the beginning was the experience of Truth — How to say “We believe….” as recognition of community

We Believe
Often we read or hear something and our first thought is “I wouldn’t say that” or “I’m not comfortable with that language”.  We pore over the words of hymns or dissect the latest sermon or blog, and all the while we draw lines and dig trenches.  Creedal Tests have been used for centuries to do the same — as if Truth were a sword to separate the Sheep from the Goats, or the wheat from the chaff. 
Don’t ask yourself if you agree with me; just take a moment to see if you can hear what I’m saying.  No one requires you to do anything or take any stance for the moment; and when that time comes you can, and you will.  But this isn’t that time, not yet.
I believe Truth isn’t a sword: it’s that in which “we live and move and have our being” (Act 17:28, Cretica by Epimenides).  It’s not something to use to divide and hold apart; rather, it is the very thing that makes us one.  It isn’t something to use to conquer others; it is the very foundation that allows us to be free. 

EPIMENIDES OF CNOSSOS a semi-mythical 7th or 6th century BC
Greek seer and philosopher-poet.

When I say “I believe”, I am not telling you what you ought to think, or requiring you to confirm my view.  I am sharing with you something about how I experience the world, offering a glimpse into why I say and do the things I do.  I am speaking my Truth.  That is to say, I am voicing that Truth open to all, shared by all, lived in by all but as experienced by me in all my limitations, with all my back-story, and in the language I have learned throughout my life.  
Expanding that idea, it is a beautiful thing to be able to say: “We believe…”.  It is an acknowledgement of a shared experience, a shared language, and shared hopes.  It is never the fruit of a simple debate over concepts and words: it is, at heart, a recognition of community rather than a tool for forging it.  The words of a Creed can inspire the conversation, the prayer, and the actions that bring about the “We believe …” moment, but they themselves neither create it nor constitute it. 
The Apostolic Creed, one of the most widely used and oldest of the creedal statements in Christianity, has to be understood in the context of a shared community, a shared set of stories and rituals, a shared experience of life.  It was spoken believer to believer, and is deeply embedded in the ritual of Baptism — where the dialogue isn’t one of Gatekeeper to Supplicant but, rather, the excited back and forth between friends or new partners.  The “Do you..” and “I do ..” is not one of uncertainty but of already knowing the answer and delighting in hearing it out loud.  Think of the wedding ceremony where each partner is asked if they take the other: there is no uncertainty at this point, and yet the saying of it out loud is still so much more than formality: it is a joyful expression of their relationship to each other and the community around them. 

The excitement of retrieving the football - which will
 become a shared story, a shared experience of life

The Apostolic Creed is not the Creedal Test that has rightfully been recognised in terms of power dynamics and control.  It is not accompanied by the cudgel of “say this, think that, or else”.  It is the joyful celebration of a shared experience of the divine, in a community of shared stories, shared rituals, shared prayer, and shared hopes.  This Creed is a shape not arrived at by carving into, or by cutting away, according to a precise, planned view of the end result, but rather a shape grown organically according to the nature of the living material and the conditions over time it finds itself in.  It is a shape that shows its history in every twist and knot, but is always growing, never knowing what the future will bring for it — yet unafraid because growth is not deviation from a plan, it is not failure, it is the success of ongoing life and vitality.

knotted, gnarled, organic growth - this is an apple tree
 but it may as well be a creed from the 4th century CE

“We believe …” can be beautiful, it can be joyful, and I think — if we are honest with ourselves — it is something we all long for.  Though we may all fall into the pride of wanting to push our views and our expressions on others, and though we have all seen too clearly how easily Creedal Tests have been used to exert influence and put pressure on individuals and groups, our longing is not for the set of words.  The shared experience of the Divine, the communal life of shared stories and prayer, the excited back and forth of connecting with others at the profoundest level: that is what we thirst for.

We long to be one, not by giving up our personhood, not by rejecting the quality of individuality, not by capitulating to the will of others, but by embracing the community, by shared living in Truth.  I haven’t lost hope for that “We believe…” moment, that Creed ‘in spirit and in truth’ (John 4:23) and I believe the surest start towards it is acknowledging the culture and the stories that have shaped me and which I already share with others.  Despite the name that the tale is more commonly known by, there were two sons in the tale of the Forgiving Father (Luke 15: 11-32): together we can write an ending where no one is left sat outside.